Author’s Caveat: This post is in no way a blanket endorsement of the the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien. Parents will need to determine the maturity level of their children. Since these fantasies include magic, violence, and extreme adventure, I strongly encourage parents to learn for themselves the content of each story before sharing with a child as each family has different convictions of what is acceptable. By 18 years, our young adults were ready for a full appreciation of the books and movies, but I have to say that when Hollywood takes hold of any great work, elements of darkness are added into it that were not intended in the original work. Some things are “meant to be read and to be at our own imagination”, so it is the books I primarily recommend, to be read and chewed upon for a while. First and foremost, we measure everything by the Word of God, using wisdom given to us by the Holy Spirit.
Though maybe not a widely held view (but a controversial one), I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien’s vastly popular creative life work makes a significant contribution to today’s Christian theological discussion, most especially with regard to the purpose of the Christian life and our role in pointing others to faith in Jesus Christ.
The Child and the Man
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) was a major scholar and professor of the Old and Middle English language at the University of Leeds and Oxford. More notably, he wrote a number of fantastical stories, including The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955). They were set in an ancient time of his own imagination – a reflection of our own world, called Middle-earth – and populated by Men (mankind), merry Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, Trolls, and Orcs and Ents, as well as good and evil.
Ronald, as he was called, was born in South Africa to English parents – his father developed rheumatic fever and died suddenly near his third birthday. His young mother relocated her two little sons back to England where they lived a poorly but refined life in the pastoral hamlet of Sarehole. The brothers adventured in the hill country at Sarehole Mill, Moseley Bog, and his Aunt Jane’s farm of Bag End which would later inform Tolkien’s books.
Tolkien’s young mum, Mabel, taught the children herself at home taking them to out to draw landscapes and maps, study botany, and awaken them to the rudiments of Greek, Latin, German, and French early on. Young Tolkien was quite an avid scholar reading widely and absorbing everything, but his dear Mother died when he was 12, a victim of diabetes before insulin.
The polarity between Tolkien’s cheerier childhood days at home in the lush landscapes of Sarehole and his adolescent years under the care of others in the grimy, dark industrial center of Birmingham would be reflected strongly in his later writings.
As a young college man, Ronald went to Exeter where he learned the Classics, Old and Middle English, Germanic languages, Finnish and Welsh, and soon began creating his own languages. This propensity for and love of philology blossomed. In 1913 Tolkien published his earliest poem, entitled ‘From the many-willow’d margin of the immemorial Thames.’ Do we see glimmers of the Shire?
“There were imaginative flickers of Middle-earth in the precocious child, Ronald Tolkien. Enchanting English landscapes, a language invented with a young cousin for kicks, an awakening love of mythology, especially of the northern and Germanic variety, and a local doctor named Gamgee were all future literary fodder [for Tolkien].” ~ Jon Bloom
Edith and The Great War
But it was in the turbulent inferno of WWI, where Tolkien, commissioned in the Lancashire Fusiliers, experienced unutterable evils. The lives of all but one of his close friends of the “T.C.B.S.” (Tea Club and Barrovian Society) had met death in action. It was during this season that the mythology and epic tales that later gave birth to his books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) were forged. He spent the rest of his life working on this fantasy. (source)
Before he shipped out in March, 1916, he married his longtime friend Edith Bratt. He later said of his feelings about leaving his new wife to go to the First World War; “Parting from my wife then … it was like a death”. During the War they developed a code that they could use to write private letters to each other without them being read by the English censors. Edith was then able to follow his movements on the map and know where he was fighting.
“In a hole in the ground…”
It was during his years teaching years at Oxford that Tolkien would scribble an curious note in an exam book: “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” Curious as to what exactly a “Hobbit” was and why it should live in a hole, he began to build a story about a short creature who inhabited a world called Middle-earth. This grew into a story he told his children, and in 1936 a version of it came to the attention of the publishing firm of George, Allen, and Unwin (now part of HarperCollins), who published it as The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, in 1937. It became an instant and enduring classic. (source)
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings
Stanley Unwin, the publisher, stunned by the success of The Hobbit, asked for a sequel, which blossomed into a multi-volume epic. So determined was Tolkien to get every detail right that it took him more than a decade to complete it.
The Lord of the Rings appeared in 1954-1955 in three parts: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, and The Return of the King.
Nearly 50 years after its publication, Tolkien’s epic tale The Lord of the Rings has sold more than 100 million copies and been translated into more than 25 languages.
When J.R.R. Tolkien died in 1973, it fell to his son Christopher to work through boxes of writings to piece together and publish the mythic history of Middle-earth. Tolkien never envisioned those tales of Middle-earth would become a global phenomenon it has. (source)
(source) JRR and his wife Edith before his death in 1973. Many feel she was the
inspiration for his fictional characters Lúthien Tinúviel and Arwen Evenstar.
Tolkien: Fantasy with Purpose?
As a teaching parent of younger children, I tended to write off Tolkien’s fantasies (despite having read and loved them all in college). I reasoned that such outlandish stories were just a distraction to our ‘more serious’ work until we watched the Lord of the Rings Trilogy DVDs over a series of nights as a family and had such insightful conversation. With our eyes wide open, we saw a much richer meaning and purpose. Tolkien (and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia) is quite different than the run-of-the-mill fantasy, which perhaps twists our children’s minds.
“I have just passed on from believing in God to definitely believing in Christ… My long night talk with Dyson and Tolkien had a great deal to do with it.”
~C. S. Lewis, The Conversion Story of C. S. Lewis
J.R.R. Tolkien: More Than Meets the Eye
Tolkien’s creative writings are, some say, a reflection upon the Gospel. His visionary world permits him a certain amount of creative license in wrestling with the Christian perspectives on creation, incarnation, and salvation, and allowing him to find new ways to think on old problems.
Tolkien never intended his tales of Middle-earth to be a desertion from reality, but a means of seeing beyond the confined walls of our perceptions to a much larger reality beyond. And he suffered no delusions that Middle-earth was that reality. But through the lenses of Middle-earth, Tolkien, an unashamed Christian, wanted to show us “a far-off gleam . . . of evangelium in the real world” (emphasis his, “On Fairy-stories”). His kind of fantasy was intended to help prisoners in the real world escape and go home.
There is a deep, profound reason why God created us to be story-makers and storytellers, and why, when the Word became flesh (John 1:14), he frequently spoke in stories. The best make-believe stories help us better understand the real world. And in our day, such stories are needed more than ever.
Professor Louis Markos writes,
We are, in many ways, a civilization adrift on the stormy seas of relativism and existentialism. The first ‘ism’ has robbed us of any transcendent standard against which we can measure our thoughts, our words, and our deeds; the second has emptied our lives of any higher meaning, purpose, or direction. Our compass is broken and the stars obliterated, and we are left with nothing to navigate by but a vague faith in the modern triad of progress, consumerism, and egalitarianism. They are not enough. . . . What we need, in short, are stories. (On the Shoulders of Hobbits, 10–11)
And, he says, the stories we need,
are precisely those that will beckon us to follow their heroes along the Road; that will embody for us the true nature of good and evil, virtue and vice, and then challenge us to engage in the struggle between the two; that will open our eyes and ears to that sacramental faerie magic that we so often miss. (187)
There Is More Faërie to Reality Than We See
It is a great, sad, tragic irony that we so often miss the true magic. This world pulses with the glory of God shining out in all that he has made (Romans 1:20) and the written Word contains “precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:4) of incredible magnitude, and we are often so dull to it all. The pervasiveness of our sinful depravity causes us to live so much of our days in a small jail cell of self-obsession.
But the great Hero of the true Epic has proclaimed liberty to all the captives who will follow him (Luke 4:18). The road is hard and the perils are many (Matthew 7:14). The enemies are otherworldly and far more powerful than ourselves (Ephesians 6:12). But the Hero is greater still (1 John 4:4) and he promises to be with us to the end (Matthew 28:20), even in the darkest places (Psalm 23:4) and deliver all in his fellowship safely into his heavenly kingdom (2 Timothy 4:18).
No faërie story or myth or man-made religion in all of recorded history compares with the Great Story of Christianity. But we need all the help we can get to turn our eyes away from our confined corner of reality and see the Story with fresh eyes.
For many, looking through the faërie lenses of Middle-earth has helped them see again the real Epic we each are a small part of. They have been helped to see the gleam of the true evangelium and press on in the journeys to which they have been appointed with renewed hope and courage, knowing that at the end of the Road is Home.
Investing life in creating fantasy that results in pointing real people in the real world to true hope in the true evangelium is not a waste, but well done.
(Excerpt taken from ‘Did Tolkien Waste His Life?‘ by Jon Bloom)
Tolkien and ‘Eucatastrophe’
Tolkien’s own word for a happy ending that “all complete fairy-stories must have” is “Eucatastrophe,” which means “the good catastrophe.” It is…
“…the sudden joyous “turn” . . . a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. : the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance: it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium [the gospel], giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world.
“The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’ There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.”
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